Thursday, May 14, 2009

Evan Mecham: the faux pas factory

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Governor Evan Mecham's legacy, such as it is, seems mostly to be his ability to offend any state resident who wasn't a white, straight, conservative male. While these embarrassments started his decline, it was a financial scandal that removed him from office.

Mecham was born in Duchesne, Utah in 1924, and attended the Utah State Agricultural College. He left school before graduation to join the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, and became a fighter pilot. He survived being shot down on one occasion and was held prisoner for 22 days; he was later awarded a Purple Heart and Air Medal for his service.

In 1947, Mecham returned to school, this time at Arizona State University. Once again, he left early, this time to open up a car dealership in Ajo. It was successful enough that he moved to Glendale later on to open another one, and the business made him a millionaire. Less successful were several short-lived newspapers Mecham launched.

In 1952, Mecham took his first stab at politics with a run for the state house of representatives. In 1960, he was elected as a Republican to the state senate and served one term. In 1962, Mecham won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate on a platform critical of the United Nations and a recent Supreme Court decision limiting prayer in public schools. However, he failed to gain enough support from the party to succeed in the general election. Mecham also made four unsuccessful bids for governor in 1964, 1974, 1978, and 1982.

It took a third party to help Mecham win the gubernatorial race in 1986. In that year, independent candidate Bill Schulz split the Democratic vote and brought Mecham into office despite the lack of a clear majority. Mecham ran on a platform of tax relief and political reform, and urged such measures as lowering taxes, encouraging economic development, establishing a 50-year plan to address the state's water needs, investing in solar power, decreasing state spending, and phasing out state offices that were not needed. While in office, he established an Arizona trade and tourism office in Taiwan, supported legislation allowing the governor to choose pro-tem judges to handle drug cases, and advocated raising the highway speed limit from 55 to 65 miles per hour.

Mecham's most well-known and infamous decision was announced at his first State of the State address in January of 1987: he declared Martin Luther King, Jr. Day canceled as a state holiday. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan had signed a bill declaring the third Monday in January a national holiday to honor the late civil rights leader. However, the decision followed three years of debate in Congress, and the holiday did not officially go into effect until 1986. Mecham said he had been advised that the state could be sued for the $3.5 million in lost productivity from the new holiday if it remained in place. He further contended that his predecessor, Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt, had illegally created the state holiday by executive order after the state legislature had rejected the measure by one vote.

The result was a boycott of Arizona by civil rights and other groups, with 45 conventions choosing to cancel arrangements they had made in the state. These groups included the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represented 134 black-owned newspapers and canceled a convention in Arizona; the Democratic Party, which moved a finance council meeting from Tucson to California; and the National Black Nurses Association, which also moved its convention out of Arizona. Looking back on the debacle, Time reported that Mecham's attempt to save $3.5 million had resulted in $25 million in lost business due to the boycotts.

Mecham was also criticized for nominating people with problematic backgrounds for state positions. There was a liquor commissioner suspected of involvement in a murder in Mexico, a special assistant who left upon being charged with extortion, a tax commissioner who had not filed his own state taxes, and a state investigator twice court-martialed while a Marine. Receiving the most attention was an education commissioner who said teachers should not contradict the beliefs of a student, even if the student believed the world was flat.

As Mecham's term progressed and more troubles befell him, newspaper articles noted the increasing number of groups he offended with off-color remarks or other actions. The list included blacks, women, gays, liberals, Jews, Japanese-Americans, and Catholics. He suggested that Jews should face up to the fact that they were living in a Christian nation; that working women led to increased divorce rates; and that the eyes of visiting Japanese businessmen "went round" when they heard of the country's golf courses. He defended himself against charges of racism, stemming from his decision over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and his support of a textbook that made a reference to black children as "pickaninnies." Time referred to him as a "veritable faux pas factory." A joke book began circulating with such quips as, "What do Mecham's political appointees have in common? Parole officers." Across Arizona, motorists sported bumper stickers reading, "Pickaninny: what we did for Governor."

With the questionable appointments and offensive statements as its basis, a recall effort began within the first year of Mecham's term. Political leaders, including former Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, Democratic Congressman Morris Udal, and ex-Governor Babbitt joined in the cry for his resignation. Mecham dismissed the recall effort, saying it was doomed to fail because the person who started it, Republican businessman Ed Buck, was gay. He also said he enjoyed the support of former Republican Governors Jack Williams and Paul Fannin, then a U.S. senator.

Nevertheless, the recall signatures swelled to 350,000 by November of 1987: 6,000 more than the number of votes Mecham received in the general election and 130,000 over the minimum limit needed to certify the petition and establish a recall election in May of 1988. Adding insult to injury was the "Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy," a group named for the governor that made its debut act in late 1987 by sabotaging ski lifts at a resort in Flagstaff. Despite his rising unpopularity, Mecham declared, "These people don't have a prayer of getting me out of this office because the people are with me."

The recall had been well underway, but it was spurred on in October of 1987 when it was revealed that Mecham had not reported a $350,000 loan to his campaign by developer and lawyer Barry Wolfson. State law required elected officials to report any debt of $1,000 or more, together with the identity of the lender. The money had been loaned in 14 promissory notes, and it was questioned whether Wolfson's support had influenced two appointments to the State Housing Finance Review Board. The board's duties included awarding bids of industrial development bonds for low-income housing, and at the time Wolfson was being sued for fraud and racketeering in the alleged misuse of $368 million in such bonds. In January of 1988, Mecham was criminally indicted on six counts of perjury, fraud, and filing a false campaign report.

Both the house of representatives and senate in the state legislature were dominated by Republicans, but the legislators had had enough. In February of 1988, the house of representatives voted 46-14 to impeach Mecham on the basis of the $350,000 loan. The house also charged him with inhibiting an investigation into a death threat against a former lobbyist who testified before the grand jury about the loan, as well as an illegal loan of $80,000 of state money to buoy up his car dealership. Mecham was removed from office, Democratic Secretary of State Rose Mofford was named acting governor of Arizona, and the recall election (now a moot point) was called off.

In April, the state senate voted 21 to 9 to convict Mecham on charges related to obstruction of justice and the illegal loan. It dismissed the charge related to the $350,000 so as not to inhibit the upcoming criminal trial on that issue. Mecham was officially removed from office, the first governor to be impeached in 59 years, on the anniversary of Dr. King's assassination. However, a senate vote to prevent him from running for political office again failed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to pass. The senate also approved payment of about $202,000 to compensate Mecham for the legal fees he incurred while governor.

Mecham had claimed that the failure to report the $350,000 loan had been an innocent mistake on the part of his brother and campaign manager, Willard Mecham. The prosecution argued that Mecham had been willingly trying to conceal the funds, but a jury acquitted him of all criminal charges. The loan itself had been repaid in full by the end of 1987.

Though Mecham's decision to cancel the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is seen as one of his biggest blunders, the issue over the holiday was not quite over. Three months after impeaching Mecham, the senate rejected a bill to establish the day as a state holiday by two votes, with some legislators complaining that Democratic efforts to create the holiday were heavy-handed. The holiday was finally ratified in Arizona in September of 1989 when Mofford signed it into law; at that point, Arizona was the 47th state to recognize the holiday.

Mecham tried unsuccessfully to run for governor once more in 1990, and also failed to take the Republican nomination for the Senate from the incumbent, John McCain, in 1992. Three years later, he became the chairman of the Constitutionalist Networking Center, an organization advocating the election of people who were strict constructionists in regards to the U.S. Constitution. He spent much of his time saying that he had been the victim of conspiracy, working for a time as a radio talk show host and newspaper columnist. In 1999, he published a book entitled Impeachment: The Arizona Conspiracy, where he said his impeachment was "pure and simple raw political power exercised by those who wanted to remain in control."

Besides the joke books and bumper stickers, Mecham's brief term also sparked an amendment to the Arizona constitution that required a runoff election in the event that no majority winner emerges, as was the case in Mecham's gubernatorial contest. In 2008, Mecham died in Phoenix after suffering for several years from Alzheimer's disease.

Sources: The American Presidency Project, National Governor's Association, "ML King: Slain Civil Rights Activist Is Finally Honored With National Holiday" in the Daily Collegian on Jan. 17 1986, "The GOP's Silver Lining" in Time on Nov. 17 1986, "Headliners: A Holiday Dispute" in the New York Times on Dec. 28 1986, "Newspaper Group Calls Off Meeting in Arizona as Protest" in the New York Times on Jan. 22 1987, "Black Nurses Shun Arizona" in the New York Times on Mar. 7 1987, "Mecham Campaign Loan Subject of Inquiry" in the New York Times on Oct. 22 1987, "Recall Backers Have The Signatures, But Mecham Just Scoffs" in the Deseret News on Oct. 25 1987, "Mecham Not 'Knowingly Guilty'" in the Deseret News on Oct. 26 1987, "Evan Mecham, Please Go Home" in Time on Nov. 9 1987, "Mecham Repays Controversial Loan" in the Washington Post on Dec. 13 1987, "House Impeaches Arizona Governor" in the New York Times on Feb. 6 1988, "Arizona Senate Ousts Governor, Voting Him Guilty of Misconduct" in the New York Times on Apr. 5 1988, "Senators in Arizona Vote to Pay Fees For Ousted Governor" in the New York Times on Apr. 7 1988, "Mecham Cleared of Concealing Loan" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jun. 17 1988, "Arizona 47th State to Honor Dr. King With Holiday" in the Los Angeles Times on Sep. 23 1989, "Evan Mecham, Ousted Governor, Dies at 83" in the New York Times on Feb. 23 2008, "King Holiday Loses Again in Arizona" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jul. 2 1988, "Evan Mecham, Ousted Governor, Dies at 83" in the New York Times on Feb. 23 2008, "Evan Mecham, 83; Was Removed as Arizona Governor" in the Washington Post on Feb. 23 2008, Encyclopedia of Terrorism by Harvey W. Kushner, Biographical Dictionary of American Newspaper Columnists by Sam G. Riley

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